NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — As a sign of solidarity with religious minorities who have been victims of Islamic State-led genocide, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford celebrated a special Mass for persecuted Middle Eastern Christians April 15 at St. Mary Church.
He welcomed Bishop Bawai Soro, who heads the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Mar Addai of Toronto and is a native of Iraq. He delivered the homily and also proclaimed the Gospel in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
During the Mass, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Knights of Columbus, the two bishops encouraged the large gathering of the faithful to pray for Christians throughout the world who are under constant threat of losing their homelands and their very lives if they do not renounce Christ.
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In his homily and remarks at a reception following the Mass, Soro was effusive in expressing his appreciation to the Knights and Catholics in the archdiocese for their outpouring of support.
“These persecuted Christians of Iraq and Syria have not stopped giving thanks to God for your love and solidarity,” he said.
“We thank you for helping us carry our cross” of being persecuted and displaced “simply because we believe in Christ,” said Soro, who for many years has ministered to the Iraqi Christian community in North America.
Blair recognized especially students from the nine high schools in the archdiocese, who, in recent months, have been part of an archdiocese-wide effort to learn about the genocide in Iraq and Syria. Students in each school prayed for a “sister town” they adopted in the region; held assemblies about the persecution and rebuilding efforts in the ancient cities; and sold “solidarity crosses” for $10 that were made in the Middle East.
During the offertory, students presented the archbishop with proceeds from the sale of the olive wood crosses supplied by the Knights of Columbus that will be sent to the “sister towns” to help in rebuilding efforts.
The Knights are hopeful that the program “will be the first of many across the U.S. and Canada,” according to a statement from Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson. The Knights estimate that about $70 will feed a displaced family for a month in Iraq; and about $2,000 will help reconstruct a family’s home.
“We are very grateful to the Archdiocese of Hartford for its support of those who have been persecuted for their faith in the Middle East, and we have been truly inspired by these high school students who have taken time and energy to learn about this important issue and raise money to help,” Anderson added.
As part of the high school campaign, Blair delivered a YouTube webcast shown in the schools in which he explained the genocide of Christians by IS that has resulted in deaths and the disappearance of Christians from their homelands.
He noted that Christians in Iraq and Syria are members of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world; but the number of Christians in Iraq alone has fallen from 1.5 million before 2003 to only 200,000 today. In Syria, the number of Christians has declined by 70 percent, according to the Knights of Columbus.
Christians persecuted by IS militants in Iraq and Syria “were given the choice of renouncing their faith, fleeing or being killed,” Blair stated. “The fact that the overwhelming majority kept their faith, even though it meant that they had to leave what were often comfortable middle-class lives is a great witness to the power of their faith.”
During a reception and question-and-answer session held after the Mass, questions were fielded by Blair and Soro; Andrew Walther, vice president for communications and planning for the Knights; and Stephen Rasche, counsel to the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese in Irbil, Iraq.
The Knights of Columbus has played an active role in raising awareness about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Since 2014, its Christian Refugee Relief Fund has committed more than $18 million to aid persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region with food, shelter, education, medicine and rebuilding. A current project underway is the resettlement of the Iraqi town of Karamles in Ninevah.
The international fraternal organization also has advocated for U.S. government relief funds to be directed to communities targeted for genocide by IS; and in 2016, the Knights led a major advocacy and publicity campaign in support of the U.S. congressional and state department declarations of genocide.
“Our mission is to preserve the word and example of Christ in the Middle East, and this we are committed to do, whatever the cost,” said Rasche. “In this, we are grateful for the support and solidarity we have received from our brothers and sisters in Connecticut and elsewhere.”
Soro explained that the Christians of Iraq would not have survived the past four years without the help of fellow Christians from around the world.
The Chaldean Catholic Church has over 600,000 members with about 45 percent residing in the Middle East. Many have emigrated to other nations as a result of the violence. The Eparchy of Mar Addai of Toronto serves 30,000 Chaldean Catholics.
Chalupsky is on the staff of The Catholic Transcript, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford.